Published 2019-04-15

This post is also available in Swedish

Ban on plastic straws not enough

Banning plastic straws is an inadequate way of tackling the problems that our growing use of plastic risks causing. This is claimed in an opinion piece written by three researchers associated with Mistra’s Sustainable Plastics and Transition Pathways (STEPS) research programme. They argue that the problems with plastic can be solved — provided the industry ensures that it becomes fossil-free and plastic use more sustainable.

In an opinion piece published in Ny Teknik, researchers Fredric Bauer, Tobias D Nielsen and Lars J Nilsson of Lund University claim that plastic is a superb material that fulfils many functions in modern society.

But its effects are not entirely positive. In parallel, plastic has reared its ugly head as one of our most severe environmental issues. Because of plastic debris in the world’s oceans, beaches are littered and animals are suffering.

The issue is highly topical. Last year, for example, the EU published a plastic strategy, which several countries followed up with their own action plans. There is progress in Sweden too: a Swedish government inquiry on sustainable plastic use, for example, presented its report affirming that the objective is achievable.

The researchers who wrote the article agree with the inquiry’s conclusions, and are disappointed that it was received with silence.

They therefore ask: what do industry and business want?

Plastic is, they believe, a problem that requires far-reaching changes. To arrive at a solution, banning disposable items such as plastic straws or blaming consumers for using too much plastic is not enough. Accordingly, they want the sector itself to take responsibility and ensure that consumers can access fossil-free products. They also want plastic to be recovered to a greater extent and not just be a resource for energy recovery.

Globally, the industry expects the use of plastic to double within 20 years if nothing radical is done. The petrochemical industry is investing heavily in new production based on untaxed, cheap fossil raw material to meet this demand. Fossil plastic raw material is also an important and profit-driving product for the oil industry, which wants to become less dependent on declining fuel markets.

The Lund researchers are critical of the fact that, today, there is no clear idea or vision for how to reverse the trend, or how the sector should lead the transition to non-fossil production and better recycling and recovery.

The plastic industry must show how it wants this adjustment to be made.

Now is when future solutions and systems that work in both Sweden and the world are being formed, the article’s writers argue. But for progress to be possible, investments in both new technology and infrastructure are required for production of bio-based and chemically recovered plastics alike.

The companies willing to move first have much to gain from developing materials, products and services not just for the Swedish market, but also for export. On the other hand, the companies that continue to plough billions of kronor into fossil-based and non-recoverable plastic run the risk of their investments soon becoming worthless. This makes the issue important for the financial sector, and especially long-term investors, as well.

A vision for sustainable plastic use is vital for the environment, but also for the thousands of job opportunities in Swedish industry for plastic manufacture and processing.

The researchers also claim that most systems of waste disposal worldwide have failed. Sweden is no exception.

They also emphasise that the issue of plastic waste is often reduced to one of packaging, although it involves a great deal more than that.

They point out, for example, that vehicles are increasingly made of plastic that could be recycled, provided that was considered and prioritised even more than today, at both the design and the scrapping stage. Many consumer products, such as toys and kitchen utensils, consist solely of plastic, but today discarding these products with packaging is not allowed, and they are therefore not recycled. The construction sector, which uses large amounts of plastic, could also make major efforts.

The conclusion of the opinion piece is that the plastic processing industry can assume greater responsibility by sharing its knowledge of the materials with its customers. This would in turn accelerate the trend towards more circular material flows. However, new technology in the recycling and recovery industry is not enough to solve the problems. In parallel, operators must work decisively on every link in the value chain.

They also want to shift the focus from consumers becoming better at sorting waste, or using fewer plastic bags, to a discussion about the sector’s responsibility to become fossil-free and make plastic use more sustainable.

The authors, who wish to convey hope, end the text by declaring that they think it will work. But they qualify this statement with a conditional clause: ‘If the industry so wishes.’

The opinion piece was written by Fredric Bauer, Postdoctoral Fellow in Environmental and Energy Systems Studies; Tobias D Nielsen, Postdoctoral Fellow in Political Science; and Lars J Nilsson, Professor of Environmental and Energy Systems Studies.

All three are active at Lund University and linked to Mistra’s STEPS research programme, which addresses such topics as developing policy issues, standardisation, recycling and recovery systems, and changed consumer behaviour that supports the trend towards sustainable plastic.

Text: Per Westergård